Monday, May 5, 2008

Using Motifs and Themes in Fiction

Using the poetic element of a theme or a motif in fiction is not uncommon. Think of Lord of the Rings. Obviously the ring is a symbol and provides a motif of the battle between good and evil. In the classic, Don Quixote, the windmill symbolizes his battles for honor when no battle is needed. He fights the innocent to prove he is worthy. Two recent books also use motifs and symbols. The Kite Runner uses a kite to reflect the battle of class and station in life and bigotry that is found all over the world. Finally, The Secret Life of Bees, uses the bee hive as a comment on the power of women and a metaphor of life.

Motifs and themes can enhance a total novel, by visually strengthening the meaning and focus of the story. In one of my books, a raspberries provide a motif used to define characterization, mystery set-up, and as figures of speech: analogies and similes to bring the focus home.

The story opens when Sandy returns to her hometown to spend time with her ailing mother and to regroup from a broken engagement and loss of her job. A hillside near her home serves as a place of solace and recurring nostalgia, recalling raspberry-picking as a child with her father. The berry-issue serves as humor, but also as a symbol of the romance. Using this technique can be effective in creating your stories.

The following examples illustrates how re-occurring poetic images and language can create a unique motif or theme. From an early chapter:
She wandered to the bushes, smelling the fragrant growth and seeing the tiny nubs that would weigh the boughs with berries later in the summer. Memories made her smile. Carrying her sand bucket, she and her father would climb the hill in early September and pick the clusters of deep red raspberries. She ate more than she dropped in the bucket, and her father would tease her as they hurried down the hill, anticipating her mother’s juicy pies.

Further in the novel, she envisions a new berry-picking experience and one that begins to pick up the flavor of a growing romance in her life. Read this sample:
Two or three ripe berries hung from a bow, and she plucked them and popped them into her mouth. The sweet juices tantalized her tongue, and she searched among the brambles, but found only a few ripe berries. Another week or two and they would be ripe for picking.

The tasting, plucking tantalizing, searching, ripening are all words that reflect her growing attraction to the hero. As Sandy’s life changes, the berries continue to grow as a symbol:
They were gone. A few newly ripened berries still hung on the bows, but most had been picked. She pulled a few from the limbs and dropped them into the bucket. The nubs rolled around on the bottom, and the empty sound made her feel empty. It wasn’t the berries really. Everything seemed different.

Then a mysterious Haiku poem, referring to the berries, is handwritten in Sandy’s journal which she misplaced but finds on the hill.
Blossoming with love,
my heart like wild raspberries
is ripe for picking

Throughout the novel, the reference is used in analogies and similes. A simile provides this comparison: Instead, she’d let her feelings grow, edging in her consciousness, then blossoming like the raspberries on the hill, until now her emotions were lush and bursting like succulent ripe berries.

Her life and the hill become an analogy. The hill was different, and she was different. No more moping. Take life for what it was — berries and brambles. If she wanted berries, she had to take a chance at getting pricked by the brambles. If she wanted to smell roses, she had to take a chance getting stabbed by a thorn. That was it. Life was a blend of good and bad, joy and sorrow.

And in the final scene, the berries return as a culmination of the hero and heroine’s relationship. He’d been stealing her love, collecting it and holding it privately, until he had the courage to give love back to her. This image grows in the blend of simile and metaphor describing their meeting and their kiss.

Clay stepped toward her, his eyes drawing, pulling her like a magnet to metal filings. He didn’t speak, but held the bright bucket out like a gift, an offering, filled with plump ripe raspberries. She ran, throwing herself into his arms. Her emotions rose, dancing, and she felt the rhythm of his heart beating against hers. He brushed her cheek, tracing the line of her eyes and mouth. His lips touched hers, soft and sweet as the berries.

A motif, theme or symbol does not need to be woven throughout a novel, but if it is possible, it brings a continuity and a full circle feeling to the story, leaving the reader understanding your purpose and leaving them with vivid images to remember your story.


Anonymous said...

That is wonderful. But can it be overdone? How do you know when it is too much?


Gail Gaymer Martin said...

Yes, Carla -- anything overdone draws the reader from the story - so motiffs need to be used with control and only occasionally in the novel -- but it will be evident and can add an interesting twist to the novel.

Themes are often the focus of the story and the theme should weave throughout the story -- but it shouldn't become redundant.

I hope that clairifies what I meant.


Anonymous said...

Yes it does. Thanks, Gail. You are a great help. Sometimes I think I'm starting to really get it, but then I get a little unsure of myself. I've got to work on that part too.